“There comes a time in every man’s life when he must fight for what he wants most,” and with those stirring words the adventures of The Black Knight begin, a film that wonderfully illustrates the dream of Camelot and the heroic ideal. Unfortunately, aside from namechecking the likes of King Arthur and Guinevere, there isn’t much on display here to mark this as an Arthurian movie and could have easily taken place at any point during the Middle Ages. That said, let us slip back to the time of swords and gallantry when maidens were all beautiful, villains all nefarious and heroes always with the win at the end.
The film’s protagonist is a renowned blacksmith and swordsmith by the name of John (Alan Ladd) who works for the Earl of Yeonil (Harry Andrews) but who is also secretly in love with his daughter the Lady Linet (Patricia Medina), and this is, of course, a forbidden love what with her being of noble birth while John is of simple peasant stock, but like any star-crossed romance, these two are doomed to be together and we will just have to put up with eighty minutes of obstacles being thrown in their way. The chief obstacle is the Earl of Yeonil himself, who walks in on the two lovers while they are passionately embraced, which results in John being sent away at the most inopportune time.
Hollywood Trivia: Actress Patricia Medina was 5′ 7½” while Alan Ladd was only 5′ 6¼” so to create a heroic stature, the camera could never show Ladd’s feet. If he were stationary, he was usually standing on a box, or if the scene required walking, the other actors were in specially dug troughs or ditches. For everything else, the other actors were required to stand with their legs apart and their knees bent.
The main villain of this piece is the Saracen Sir Palamides (Peter Cushing), a Knight of the Round Table who is secretly in league with the pagan Cornish King Mark (Patrick Troughton) who desires Arthur’s throne as well as the extinction of Christianity. To aid in this endeavour, Sir Palamides leads an attack of Cornish soldiers, disguised as Vikings, against the castle of the Earl of Yeonil, killing all within except the Earl and his daughter Linet. The Earl is driven mad with grief and thus is unable to tell Linet that he had sent John away before the attack happened. This causes Linet to think her lover is nothing but a coward for running away. In fact, John returned in time to see Bernard (Bill Brandon), the brutish Saracen servant of Palamides, murder Linet’s mother. This leads to John accusing Palamides’ servant of the murder in front of King Arthur (Anthony Bushell), which doesn’t go over all that well what with him being a commoner and all, but Arthur grants John three months’ grace to prove the accusation or face execution himself.
The noble Sir Ontzlake (André Morell) takes pity on John and trains him in swordplay so that he can take on the alternative secret identity of the wandering Black Knight, which they hope to use in uncovering the plot against King Arthur. Unfortunately, this spy-work prevents John from immediately using his newfound sword skills against Palamides and thus his refusal to fight the evil bastard in a duel adds more evidence to his cowardice in both the eyes of Linet and that of the court, but as the heroic Black Knight, he is able to rescue the lovely Linet from being sacrificed at Stonehenge.
Note: I’ll buy her not recognizing her old lover while wearing his helmet but when he speaks he does nothing to disguise his voice, so I call bullshit there. Also, what’s with the short sleeves on his armour?
What follows is your standard medieval adventure with the hero riding all over Christendom to thwart the villains and win the hand of the fair maiden. In the case of The Black Knight, we have a cast of veteran English actors who are more than up to the task of inhabiting this bygone era, but then we also have the very American Alan Ladd as the hero and this miscasting almost sinks the picture, as he is never once believable as a knight of old. Luckily, the rest of the cast do their best to make up for this lacking — Peter Cushing is especially fun as the cunning Saracen — and the exciting action sequences and medieval pageantry all go towards making this a rather fun adventure film.
• I haven’t seen an actor more out of place in a period film since I last watched Richard Gere in First Knight. Alan Ladd doesn’t even attempt to match the speech of his fellow castmates, who all give resonant Shakespearean deliveries and flourishes.
• A blacksmith-turned-sword-wielding-hero would rear its head once again in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
• The villains disguise themselves as Vikings by wearing the stereotypical horned helmet, something actual Vikings never wore.
• There actually was a Saracen knight of the Round Table named Palamedes, but he was no villain as depicted here; in fact, he converted to Christianity and was actually the one to slay King Mark.
• Peter Cushing’s deaf and dumb henchman Bernard seems rather lifted from Zorro’s sidekick Bernardo, who played at being deaf so as to spy for his master.
• In literature, black knights were usually portrayed as villainous figures, but this film turns that idea on its head.
As an Arthurian adventure tale, The Black Knight barely checks off the boxes for it to be included in that category; aside from King Arthur, Guinevere and a barely mentioned Lancelot, there isn’t much to tie this movie to the stories of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and they even took the noble Saracen Palamedes and turned him into a villain. Now, this kind of re-writing of history, fiction or not, was certainly nothing new to Hollywood, but I’d hate to think Palamedes having brown skin had anything to do with the decision in making him the villain. Being this film was made in the 50s, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if that were the case.
Overall, The Black Knight is a passable medieval adventure movie, one that fans of the genre will most likely enjoy. Sadly, it will be more remembered for the strange casting choice of Alan Ladd than for its action and pageantry.
The Black Knight (1954)
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
I’m almost incapable of disliking a film that features Peter Cushing and The Black Knight is no exception, the film is a quick and fun adventure story that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Sadly, this is also another King Arthur movie where the great wizard Merlin is absent.